There is a tendency to overreact to big wins but Roy Williams was rightfully encouraged by what North Carolina did on Thursday.
The No. 21 Tar Heels found answers for almost all of their problems in ACC play in Thursday’s 82-78 win over No. 9 Duke. Even if it’s only for one game.
“It is one game but it’s a really big game,” Williams said.
And it’s one that UNC (18-7, 7-5 ACC) desperately needed. The Tar Heels needed a game where they proved to themselves what they could be if they put it all together. They needed a game where they were reminded, as Michael Jordan said last year, the ceiling is the roof.
The Tar Heels got one of those on Thursday. They took care of the ball with only two turnovers (which tied a school record), crashed the offensive glass (they had a 20-11 advantage over a bigger Duke team), got the kind of scoring balance that had been missing in early avoidable ACC losses and slowed Duke down from the 3-point line.
Duke finished 9 of 25 from the 3-point line. Compare that to a pair of 15-for-30 efforts by Clemson and N.C. State in UNC losses.
You can’t just hope and pray a light comes on in March. Nobody knows that better than UNC, which has played in the national title game the past two years.
There has to be a “jump-start,” as senior Theo Pinson put it. There has to be a moment when a team realizes what it can be. UNC had one of those on Thursday. It was the culmination of all the things Williams had been stressing to the team, even after some wins.
“I wish I why I knew what made it happen so we could keep it going,” Williams said.
The confidence from the win just might be enough to do that. Duke, which has underachieved at 7-4 in the ACC, is not the best team in the country but there isn’t another team in the country with more talent.
There isn’t a better player in the ACC than Duke freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, who was held below his scoring average (15 points on Thursday) by Pinson but added 16 rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 39 minutes.
Now UNC knows, it can beat Duke and it can compete with anyone.
“When we play our game, and play the way we know, we’re a really dangerous team,” Pinson said.
UNC did enough to hold Bagley and freshman forward Wendell Carter (10 points) in check, especially in the second half.
With 21 points from Joel Berry, 20 from Kenny Williams, 18 from Cam Johnson and 15 from forward Luke Maye, UNC got the kind of balanced scoring effort that it needs.
And with only two turnovers, the Heels had at least 11 in the previous six games (and went 3-3 in those games), UNC maximized its margin for error.
Not that anyone is going to give them a trophy for winning on Thursday, as Roy Williams pointed out, but the win gives UNC an idea of what its ceiling could be and it offers some hope.
“It’s a good game for us to win because they’re talented team,” Berry said. “You can’t just sit back and say, ‘Oh well, we won this game’ and dwell on that. You have to continue to move on and continue to get better. That’s what we want to do.”
And at least now, UNC knows that what it can do.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio